Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He Runs TRD Policy
In 2015, I visited a refugee camp near Sulaymaniah in northern Iraq where we were given an audience with Sunni clan leaders who had fled there. Our Kurdish hosts translated that they were fleeing from Daesh — the original Arabic initials for ISIS — but I remembered just enough Arabic to pick out that they were also, or even primarily, fleeing from “al-Hashd al-Sha’bi”, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a Shia militia working for the Iraqi government, but backed by Iran.
The brutal PMF are one of a series of proxies or militias under the sway of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards that fight in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and which have been used to project Iranian power across the middle east. The spearhead of an expeditionary Iranian policy, they support Tehran’s influence in Lebanon and keep Israel on wary guard; helped Assad hold on until the Russians could supply him the firepower to retake rebel cities he had lost; supply and train the Houthi rebels running rings around Saudi forces in Yemen; and turned Iran into the arbiter of Iraqi politics.
These missions have been crucial to Iranian politics. They bring prestige and opportunities for graft to the Guards’ personnel, in particular their commander, General Qasem Soleimani. The networks they establish open holes in American sanctions. They show how hardliners can bring tangible benefits to the state and Iran’s security position.
They have, however, begun to turn sour. In the last month, Lebanon has been rocked by huge protests against Hezbollah’s dominance of the political system there. Meanwhile, in Iraq some 150 people have been killed in anti-government disturbances by Shia Iraqis against their Iranian coreligionists.
On Friday protests erupted in Iran itself, apparently in up to 40 cities. Their seriousness can be judged by the severity of the crackdown. Amnesty International reports more than 100 people dead in 21 cities. To stop the protesters organising and to limit foreign coverage, the government has shut down the internet. Only four per cent of connections are still, apparently, active. Eyewitnesses say the repression is more severe than that which followed the 2009 “Green Revolution” uprising. Next Friday, when the authorities will have to cope with mass gatherings occurring under the guise of weekly prayers, will be a crucial test of the system’s strength.
The proximate cause of the uprising is a cut in petrol subsidies, instigated in response to the effects of American sanctions. In what is actually good practice, the across-the-board subsidies are to be replaced by help targeted at the poorest. But in reality the regime (which is composed of a mix of autocratic and more or less democratic institutions) faces a crisis of legitimacy and these protests have built up following months of dissent.
During the revolution itself, and the Iran-Iraq war that followed it, the regime was able to rally people around revolutionary nationalism and the now familiar trio of enemies – the United States, Great Britain and Israel – and their programme of “westoxification”. This trick was repeated with Ahmadinejad, who won his first term as president by campaigning against the North Tehran liberal elite (despite the actual elite being the decidedly illiberal Ayatollah Khamenei), and his second with some creative result-counting. This rigging sparked the mass protests of the 2009 revolution. Though it was to be the most serious internal challenge the regime has faced, it never took root outside the middle classes.
These protests are different. They take place, not against a hardline president whose agenda aligns with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, but against a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who has been unable to deliver the economic improvements he promised.
If this failure might once have been directed at the United States (and Donald Trump deserves his share of the blame), it’s now a majority of Iran’s population have grown up knowing nothing but the Islamic Republic. A weak president, constrained by an ageing clerical establishment, is no longer enough for them. They chafe at theocratic repression (videos of Iranians berating clerics who try and force women to cover up are often smuggled out), and have become increasingly angry at the economic hardship produced directly through sanctions, and indirectly, through its sheer cost by the foreign policy of an Iran in the grip of a military-religious complex run amok. You can’t eat the hashd al-sha’bi or fill your car up with Hezbollah.
Supreme Leader Khamene’i is now 80. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who maintained a balance between hardline and reforming factions, is dead. The regime is due a generational change, and the Assembly of Experts, which will elect his successor, will have a reformist majority at least until 2024. All the more reason, the regime leadership evidently thinks, to snuff this rebellion out as quickly as possible.